Standing bleary-eyed in the lobby of a Hampton Inn near Belle Vernon, Pennsylvania, I find myself happier than I should be with the complimentary breakfast that is laid out before me. There is no line for the conveyor belt toaster, so I have time to let my my English muffin halves run through three cycles, giving them the perfectly burnt edges I love so much. And while the cantaloupe in the stainless-steel bowl looks pale and flavorless, a quick excavation toward the bottom reveals cuts of a deeper orange and muskier aroma. My good fortune continues when I manage to capture the last remaining drops of caffeinated "house blend" coffee before the canister starts to wheeze like a two-pack-a-day smoker, then snag the last mini box of Golden Grahams. I love Golden Grahams.
Settling into a pastel-colored sofa, I flip through the South Hills-Mon Valley Messenger (the free local paper that's available by the checkout counter) and dig into a story about an interfaith group that recently helped some still-suffering victims of a summer flood in Connellsville. I don’t know anything about this flood or where Connellsville is, but the story puts a frog in my throat. It's accompanied by a photograph of a youngish, auburn-haired flood victim holding onto four foam containers of food. She is standing between the providers of that food, two middle-aged women in outdoor wear, both of whom look like Mother Teresa if Mother Teresa wore sweats.
It is late December and the events of the past year have me convinced that a lot of people in this country are terribly bad. But looking at this picture I get to thinking that most of them are terribly good. The article does more than make me reconsider my faith in humanity. It provides a connection to this unknown place where my wife and daughter and I are hunkered down, if only for a night, as we travel from from my in-laws’ house in Vermilion, Ohio to our home in New York.
Reading the local paper over breakfast is a ritual I practice whenever I travel, whether it's the Los Angeles Times, or the Vermilion PhotoJournal. Most hotels offer USA Today or The New York Times, but I always opt for the local. Aside from the Messenger I also have copies of the Penn Telegraph and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that I picked up at a nearby 7-11 while filling up the car the night before.
I don’t read these papers because they’re quaint. Unlike USA Today, which has the same stories I hear about practically every hour on the NPR or CNN news cycle, they help me learn about a town’s residents and its religions; its farmers markets and its economic struggles; its high school football championships and heroin epidemics. In other words, those stories my Facebook and Twitter algorithms tend to overlook.
In some cases, reading the local paper will alert you to major news events you’ll feel downright ashamed for not knowing about: a catastrophic fire that destroyed thousands of homes somewhere in Oregon; an entire high school that was swept away by a tornado in Massachusetts. I remember sitting in a hotel dining room in Calgary one morning eating a breakfast of bacon and eggs while reading the local. As everyone fidgeted on their laptops and cellphones, I spread open a copy of the Calgary Herald, almost all of which was dedicated to a nearly biblical flood that had inundated the city weeks prior; a flood that killed five people and left thousands of people homeless. I had no idea.
This is why the morning paper matters. It is not curated for you and you alone. It is spread before you, quite literally, forcing you at least take a fleeting glance at the story about the local school board elections you'd likely never click on; a piece about cancer rates along a certain waterway; the story of a young entrepreneur's new restaurant in a neighborhood that's long been seen as dicey.
As with most things people just don't do anymore, reading the paper has an element of unfortunate nostalgia. It takes me back to mornings when I would head into the kitchen as my father studied the business section of the Sunday Cincinnati Enquirer over his coffee and cigarettes. I remember how I would grab the comic section and the TV schedule then run into the family room to read Bloom County and the capsules that revealed plots for the coming week's new episodes of Cheers and Family Ties.
After college, I would sit with my stepfather at the dining room table, thumbing through the help wanted ads as he looked at the stocks, the creased pages of each section stained with the imprint of our Franciscan apple-patterned coffee mugs. Years later, while living in New York, my ex-girlfriend and I would sit in our Brooklyn apartment reading the New York Times while listening to the Magnetic Fields and handing each other stories we thought the other should see; stories we'd end up discussing or debating well into the afternoon.
But it would be hypocritical of me to preach too much about the importance of breakfast with the morning paper. With a young daughter and not a lot of time on my hands, my breakfasts are spent spooning down bowls of instant oatmeal while scrolling through Twitter and Facebook, places where everyone talks about the same news and everyone reacts in the same way. There’s no mention of clogging competitions or high school football divisional championships. There is no mention of an important school levy in Topeka or a freak tornado along the Connecticut River.
And then there are the obituaries.
A deep read of the local paper's obit section is something everyone should take upon themselves when they hang their hats for a night. This can unfold like a Thornton Wilder play, connecting you to a town's people and how they lived and loved and died. Sitting in the Hampton Inn, I learn that many of the deceased in town were of Ukrainian descent, spent their lives working at Westinghouse, and breathed their final breaths at the Excela Health hospital in Westmoreland.
In one of the papers I get to know a man named John from Mamont who passed away peacefully four days after Christmas. He was an engineer with Westinghouse, where, as his obituary read, “some of the technology he helped to create can be found in the depths of the ocean to the surface of the moon.” He married his high school sweetheart, Betty and he must have loved her dearly because he carried on just 24 days after her own death on December 5.
The obituary that nearly does me in is of a 56-year-old man named Bill who is shown in a picture wearing a Pittsburgh Steelers cap. Bill was an accountant at a local utility company. A member of the Yukon, Pennsylvania Lion’s Club, as well as the Yukon Slovenian Club. Perhaps it’s his age that hits me, or maybe it’s his youthful appearance, but Bill’s death sticks with me for days after I leave town. Back home in New York, I look him up on the Legacy website, where family and friends have left tributes.
I find a remembrance written by the younger sister of one of Bill's high school friends. She talks about how Bill would come to her house when she was a little girl; how, later in life, she carpooled with him to their jobs at Allegheny Power. She mentions how she lost her mom recently, and how, one day soon after it happened, she drove by Bill’s house, saw his light on, and decided to give him a call.
“We were reminiscing about the old times and how special he thought my Mom was,” she writes. “As much as he was going through his own health issues, he was giving me encouragement and trying to ease my pain over the loss of my Mom. He said we must keep the faith and continue to have hope because if we don’t then what’s the point of being here?”
Upstairs at the Hampton Inn, my wife is getting our daughter ready for the six hours that remain of our drive from Ohio to New York. Once they arrive downstairs, I toss the papers and the Golden Grahams into a cellophane bag and head toward the car.
When we make our way out toward the highway on-ramp, I find myself paying close attention to those people driving past me with their Pennsylvania plates. I try to imagine if they’re off to work at Allegheny Power, or nervously heading to a doctor’s appointment at Excela Health. I wonder if any of them are still thinking about Bill or John or Betty. As we enter the slow lane of the interstate, I pull open the tab on my box of Golden Grahams and leave this town for what might be the first and last time. I start wishing that we could stay a little longer.